Language reveals so much about a country, about what it values most and least. It is a window to the unwritten laws of the land and its people. The traditional proverbs of Zambia, in particular the area around our setting on the upper Zambezi, give you an idea of the spirit of the local people you will meet here, the spirit of Zambia, you could say, one passed down from generation to generation through these aphorisms, these words of not only caution, but also inspiration and guidance.
Here are twelve of our favourites from the book, Zambian Proverbs, by Nyambe Sumbwa, in this first part of our series, As we say in Zambia, along with some of the faces you’ll meet at Royal Chundu.
Proverb: Mayo mpapa, na ine nkakupapa
Literal translation: Mother carry me, I too will carry you.
Meaning: The young have an obligation to look after the aged ones in the same manner as these took care of them when they were young.
Usage: Used when reminding a young person who does not seem to care for his aged parents or relatives; of his obligation to do so.
Proverb: Uwawa, taimina.
Literal translation: he who falls does not rise on his own.
Meaning: a person with problems should be assisted.
Usage: used when people are planning to assist a colleague they consider to be in trouble or some kind of problems.
Implications: reflects the inter-dependent aspect of Bemba society.
Proverb: Akaboko, kakonka akabiye.
Literal translation: A little arm follows another.
Meaning: a person gets help from those he helps.
Usage: used when appreciating someone’s intention to give something or render service to a person regarded to be good; or when some people make a little gossip about an unhelpful person after denying him assistance on some pretext and yet the real cause for the denial is his unhelpful nature.
Implications: teaches the necessity for people to assist others in need and is similar to the English saying, “One good turn deserves another.”
Proverb: Apali umunwe, e pali ibala.
Literal translation: Where there is a finger there is a cultivated field.
Meaning: Success is a result of work and determination.
Usage: normally used when explaining an individual’s success in terms of his determined efforts or when advising someone who appears indolent and poor to work hard in order to succeed in life
Implications: Teaches the need for determination and hard work; and has its English equivalent in, “Where there is a will, there is a way”.
Proverb: Abalya imbulu, balapalamana.
Literal translation: Those who eat water monitors are found close to each other.
Meaning: People with common interests always interact.
Usage: Used when explaining the basis of some people’s friendship in terms of their common habits.
Implications: The proverb has its equivalent in the English saying, “Birds of a feather flock together.”
Proverb: Imbwa ya mukali, taicenjela.
Literal translation: A dog belonging to a harsh master does not become wise.
Meaning: Imposition of strict or extreme discipline is counter-productive.
Usage: Often used when advising a parents not to be too harsh with his children as this could make them immune to his actions and disregard his instructions.
Implications: Teaches people the need to treat their children kindly and in a humane manner.
Ki Kaonde Proverbs
Proverb: Mumuchima wamukwenu munkundwe.
Literal translation: Your friend’s heart is a wilderness.
Meaning: You cannot tell another person’s thoughts.
Usage: Used when cautioning a person against taking another for granted; lest he falls victim of his (the other person’s) hidden evil intentions.
Implications: Teaches people to be careful in their dealings with others.
Proverb: Kanwa kaalobeele mutwe.
Literal translation: The mouth puts the head in trouble.
Meaning: A person should be careful of what he says in order to avoid problems.
Usage: Used to caution someone against careless talk.
Implications: A particularly pertinent lesson to people in “police states” i.e. countries with very little, if any, freedom of speech and where police informers are prevalent.
Proverb: Fukafuka uja twebakulu talalala wajamo kubulwa.
Literal translation: Kneeling you eat with elders, keep standing you have nothing.
Meaning: You learn a lot of things from elders when you are humble but not when you are rude.
Usage: Used when advising a young person to be good to elders in order to win their love and hence, open to him their store-house of knowledge and wisom.
Implications: Teaches respect for elders, something most if not all other African peoples believe in.
Proverb: Bichi biji pamo byobishenkana.
Literal translation: Trees that are together brush against each other.
Meaning: It is normal for people living together to quarrel.
Usage: Used to advise people who have quarrelled to bury the hatchet and continue living in harmony.
Implications: The Tonga provide the same teaching with their “Matako alaamwi tabuli kucumbana” which literally means: “Buttocks that are together cannot avoid friction.”
Proverb: Kuboko kulonda kuboko kukwabo.
Literal translation: An arm follows another arm.
Meaning: A person helps he who helps him.
Usage: Often used when reciprocity is planned or made; or when people make a little gossip of someone who has been denied assistance because of his unhelpful nature.
Implications: Teaches people to be kind to others.
Proverb: Komu haiimelwi ki manaka ayona.
Literal translation: A cow does not fail to find its horns heavy.
Meaning: A person cannot fail to look after his family.
Usage: Used to express surprise as to how an individual is managing to cope with an unusually large family; or when person in that position wither retorts to someone who unkindly refers to the matter or tells those who talk about it out of sympathy that he has no alternative.
Implications: Can express either sympathetic/humane feelings or antagonistic ones – depending on the tone and/or circumstances.